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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Price, performance, size, practicality
Room for improvement
Ride quality, interior plastics, seats

4 Mar 2003

KIA is on a roll. Given the song and dance associated with the recent launch of its new flagship, the Sorento off-roader, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the emerging South Korean brand's most important model.

And perhaps in branding terms it is, but there's a far more important Kia called the Rio which, as the least expensive model in the growing range and therefore an introduction to the brand for many people, is expected to sell in numbers more than four times that of the image-leading Sorento.

The low-price, high-volume strategy adopted by virtually every car-maker at this end of the market was accelerated to new heights with the arrival of South Korean manufacturers Hyundai and more recently Kia.

While the facelifted 2003 Rio's $14,990 launch price is no longer "driveaway" - as offered by some Kia retailers at the end of its predecessor's life - it is still at least $1000 less than most five-door hatch or four-door sedan offerings on the market.

Rio is priced line-ball with Australia's cheapest three-door hatches such as the Hyundai Getz and Accent, Proton Satria and Suzuki Ignis. In fact, disregarding the 0.8-litre Daewoo Matiz and the 1.0-litre Daihatsu Sirion, Rio is easily Australia's most inexpensive five-door hatch.

The 1.5-litre Rio's launch price of $14,990 (plus $2000 for the auto version) positions it below five-doors like the $15,990 Daihatsu YRV 1.3 and the gaggle of $16,990 hatches including the Daewoo Lanos 1.5, Honda Jazz GLi 1.3 and Hyundai Accent 1.5. Of course, five-doors like Honda's Jazz, the Mazda2, Toyota's Echo and the Holden Barina are more expensive again.

Similarly, the four-door Rio is the cheapest light sedan on the market, easily undercutting the $16,990 Accent GL 1.5 and $17,990 Echo 1.5.

Kia Australia expects to sell up to 600 Rios per month - 100 more than the original Rio that went on sale here in July 2000 - which represents 20 per cent of the traditional four and five-door light car market, or eight per cent of the total light segment. Such sales would make Rio Australia's fourth best selling light car. Seventy five per cent of all Rios are expected to be manual transmission hatches.

But what does the facelifted Rio, available from January 1 this year, deliver you, the purchaser? In a nutshell, the answer is new front and rear styling, extra equipment, a revised dash and chassis refinements.

On the equipment front, the central locking system has been improved while air-conditioning is now also a standard factory item, as is a single-CD/six-speaker sound system and 60/40 split-folding rear seat on hatch models only.

Power steering, a driver's airbag and 13-inch steel wheels with wheel covers continue to be part of the Rio package and, while a digital clock is now included, like its rivals Rio continues to be offered with manual mirrors and windows.

Remote central locking remains a dealer-fit option while metallic paint ($160) and automatic transmission ($2000) are the only factory options.

Elsewhere, Rio has benefited from a number of cosmetic and mechanical changes. Both sedan and hatch models have received a substantial sheetmetal reskin forward of the A-pillars and while the five-door gets only detail rear-end changes, the sedan's tail is all-new. Both cars now feature a high-mounted LED brake light.

Inside there's a new dashboard featuring a second, smaller glovebox on the passenger side, twin cupholders are added to the centre console, the front door bins are larger and contain extra bottle holders, the speakers are upgraded and tweeters added into the A-pillar bases, the interior light incorporates an automatic dimmer and the standard central locking now operates via both front doors.

New variable density foam-filled seats are fitted, cabin noise has been reduced courtesy of extra sound proofing and, most significantly, Rio's MacPherson strut front suspension features 10mm longer struts and modified three-point mountings aimed at improving ride quality.

The front anti-roll bar is 1mm thicker and is now bolted rather than bush-mounted, while Rio's torsion beam rear axle has been strengthened and the rear anti-roll bar increased in diameter 3.6mm.

Rio's entire bodyshell is also said to have been stiffened, while redesigned door beams increase side intrusion protection and the front brake discs have increased in size.

Minor tweaks for Rio's M-Tech 71kW/132Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine are said to have increased refinement.

In practice, after spending a week in the better looking, better handling and better equipped 2003 Rio, it is safe to say entry level Kia ownership has definitely shifted up a gear.

Cabin ambience is improved thanks to a classier looking dash - now finished in a BMW-like animal skin plastic that looks great but still feel cheap and hard to touch. Extra cupholders, a digital clock, more useful door bins, an extra glovebox and sound system tweeters also add to interior usefulness.

Cabin quietness has taken a step up. While the Rio remains far from luxurious in terms of ride comfort and refinement, the level of noise, vibration and harshness transmitted into the cabin is noticeably reduced at all times.

Driver comfort is better too, thanks to the better shaped but still short-cushioned front seats.

Handling - particularly in the steering department - is also noticeably better. The stronger, more linear front suspension action results in less torque steer, or steering wheel tugging, under acceleration and there's also less kickback when the steering is loaded up over bumps.

This is no BMW in handling terms but at least Rio now appears to be a better match for its South Korean and even Japanese light car rivals when it comes to cornering finesse.

The updated Rio also benefits from improved ride comfort and, although the noisy and coarse 1.5-litre four continues to propel the lightweight 1043kg manual Rio sedan with surprising enthusiasm, the overriding theme is that the new car is more competent, more refined and represents better value.

Despite the improvements, the 2003 Rio is unlikely to win customers away from more upmarket competition such as Barina, Clio, Polo, 206 and C3.

But it seems budget new car motoring from Kia has just tightened its belt a notch or two.

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